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Discovery of scorched church documents throws light on Luftwaffe bombings

27 January 2023

Norfolk Museums Service

The damaged records

The damaged records

A CHANCE discovery of a box of badly scorched church documents has thrown new light on Luftwaffe bombing attacks on Norwich during the Second World War.

The papers are parish records from the medieval St Bartholomew’s, which was destroyed in one of the “Baedeker” raids in 1942 — named after the tourist guide used by the Germans to target cities of cultural and historic importance.

The registers of baptisms, marriages, and deaths dating back to 1775 were believed lost in the fire, but were unearthed by Norwich Museum’s assistant curator of social history, Bethan Holdridge. She was carrying out the annual “deep-clean” of the city’s Strangers’ Hall, a former Tudor merchant’s mansion.

“I was going through a bookcase checking for bookworms, and I opened a folder which contained burnt documents,” she said. “It was a bit perplexing, but there was obviously a story behind them. At first, I thought it was something from a fire we had at the library some years go, but then I found a label saying ‘St Bartholomew’s church, partly burnt 1942’. I knew instantly they were from the Baedeker raid.”

She has no idea how they came to be in the Hall. “We have got to do a bit of a paper trail to find where they came from after the church was destroyed,” she said. “We might never get totally to the bottom of it. It might be that someone rescued them from the fire, and later presented them to the Museum. We have got to start delving into our historic accession registers to see if we can find when they came to us.”

The Museum will now work with Norfolk Record Office, which already has other papers from the church, to conserve the registers, but Miss Holdridge thinks that they might be too badly damaged to be useful for research. “The real interest is the history of Baedeker raids. However, the information from them is safe, as a record was made prior to 1942, and is on microfiche. Norwich Museum does have an area dedicated to the Baedeker raid; so its possible they could go on display there.”

She described her discovery as “one of the absolute joys” of her work. “It’s not uncommon to find these lovely little gems that tell a history and tell a story. It was a lovely thing to find. It was the journey of discovery that was particularly interesting — finding that first folder and asking ‘What on earth is this?’, to finding the label and saying ‘Oh, right.’ It made the bombing of Norwich 80 years ago — something which was perhaps a little abstract — a bit more real.”

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